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Crowdsourcing’s Golden Moment

Neal Peirce / May 03 2012

For Release Sunday, May 6, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceDefining “crowdsourcing” consumes close to 4,000 words on the Wikipedia website — fitting enough for an electronic encyclopedia that’s being updated 24/7 by some 50,000 registered users scattered across the globe.

But how about the communities where we live? How broadly are we already using the “big open tent” of crowdsourcing, its reach now magically enlarged by the worldwide web, to apply the wisdom of “people like us” to create better towns and cities?

The short answer: “it’s spreading rapidly.” And it’s going far beyond the familiar concept of “public engagement” in which mayors or county officials define an issue or problem and then ask for citizen input on how to handle it.

The big problem with the historic model, notes civic analyst Storm Cunningham, CEO of ReCitizen in Washington, D.C., is that “it implies that whoever is doing the engagement owns the process, and those being engaged don’t.” In too many cases, he adds, it becomes “an autocratic, top-down, paternalistic approach with stakeholder engagement window dressing.”

But just holding public meetings isn’t a great solution either. As Cunningham rightly observes, such assemblies often “attract a few loud, selfish, narrow-minded citizens who co-opt the dialogue to promote their own agendas, or just shoot down the ideas of others.”

So how can crowdsourcing avoid all this? It’s by hundreds, sometimes thousands of citizens going online, suggesting ideas to tackle problems, then commenting on each other’s ideas. Result: negativism, garrulous ranting gets sidelined. The best ideas rise to the top as the participants vote on each others’ proposals. The “crowd” then becomes personally engaged in actual design and strategy to make the idea work. In the most successful crowdsourcing efforts, Cunningham insists, the ideas gain such support and momentum that city halls have no choice other than to become supporters and implementers.

Cunningham calls the concept citizen-led regeneration, the topic of his forthcoming book, ReCivilizing. The first major work documenting this phenomenon, it’s scheduled for publication next January.

One exciting new development: crowdfunding to finance smart crowdsourcing ideas that are designed to make cities safer or more beautiful or more welcoming places to live. There are even websites — kickstarter.com, for example — that list promising projects which seek to elicit contributions from interested viewers.

Two New York City architects had a vision of turning a huge abandoned Lower East Side trolley terminal into Delancey Underground Park, the world’s first subterranean park. Needing $100,000 to do the design, they posted their project on Kickstarter and 45 days later had $155,186 from 3,300 backers.

In New Orleans, community activists needed $4,000 to turn an unsightly vacant lot into a community farm. Within a month they’d reached their goal. The formerly dead space is now alive with growing crops, and the fresh produce is improving local diets.

But crowdsourcing has many more forms. One of the best known is SeeCLickFix, a web tool (and mobile phone app) that invites citizens to report neighborhood problems — from broken street lights to uncollected trash to unsightly grass on rights-of-way, abandoned or neglected properties. In each case, the report goes onto a web-based map and local government is automatically informed. Users can even add video or picture documentation.

Founded four years ago in New Haven, Conn., SeeCLickFix has expanded to some 25,000 towns, with especially strong networks in New Haven and Philadelphia. Several major newspapers now follow it for local news, and the service also works to promote community volunteering.

Boston has a highly successful Citizens Connect smart phone app for city maintenance, which officials say not only gets problems fixed but helps build public trust in government.

Indeed, “establishment” support for crowdsourcing techniques is growing rapidly. A leading example is the “collaborative citizenship” project, Change By Us, developed by urban imagineer Jake Barton’s “Local Projects” program in collaboration with CEOs for Cities and funded by the Rockefeller and Knight Foundations.

The idea of Change By Us — based on a successful “Give a Minute” initiative in Chicago and Memphis — is to invite residents’ ideas for civic solutions, help form project groups, and then assist them in locating funding. Change By Us is now operating in expanded form in New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle, with the blessing of the cities’ mayors.

Some day someone will likely find a clever way to subvert one or more of the new crowdsourcing tools. No approach is ever perfect. But in our current season of vicious political infighting over absolutist ideas, these new initiatives are like an elixir — to inspire citizens rather than frighten them, to hear and expand on their creative ideas, and then round up funding and then public support to advance the best. Maybe, with luck, they’ll even revive the idea that government isn’t some sinister, liberty-defiling, money-sucking monster out there. It’s really us. And we can change it.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

10 Comments

  1. Trevor Peirce
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Right technology but wrong focus. Representatives suffer from a reputation of corruption. They should be subject to increased scrutiny. The public should not be subject to another surveillance technology. Political dissent is a freedom of speech and a right. Most work of governing can be done by representatives from their own communities. Yes, the technology is possible today. With frequent and familiar interactions with constituents at home in the community an equilibrium of transparency, accountability and trust just may occur again.

    The Congress should take responsibility to declare war according to the rule of law. The last time the body did so was the second world war. The majority of ordinary people don’t want war. Yet the vestigial Congress allows all for the executive with military ‘kinetic’ actions authored and ‘approved’ by the United Nations.

  2. Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Purposeful use of the technology to achieve common goals and unique outcomes. More on this later, fer sure.

  3. Mary DeWolf
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    The New England Town Meeting is still functioning at the most efficient level. Let Crowdsourcxing emulate it digitally!

  4. Posted May 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Ditto on the New England Town Meetings. However, in WA State we will need civic education, training on public processes and willing citizens who decide that it has come time for doing governance another way. Theoretically we could do neighborhood based planning using Go To Meeting or other electronic meeting site that is reviewed for consistency and other criteria, approved by the county or city and then implemented by the neighborhoods. This process quickly empowers citizen groups to take responsibility for development and land use and moves the city/county staff into technical support and consulting roles, rather than decision-makers. The ? of whether there is political will for this to happen is always whether this can succeed. There are good examples, like Roanoke, VA, who have had ongoing, standing neighborhood citizen committees with the authority to say yes or no for over 20 years. Can we do this in the NW corner?

  5. Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    A model similar to Kickstarter, but focused on neighbourhood projects, is also being used in the UK: http://spacehive.com/

  6. Posted May 7, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    This is a great overview of some of the major success stories about tech for civic engagement in US cities.
    We’re working on documenting the apps available to increase civic engagement, and documenting the stories of their real-world use here: http://www.engagementcommons.org
    It’s a community-edited resource, so if you know of any other technologies like these, you should check it out and add them.

  7. Raymond Versteegh
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    This is a great blog post, Neal, with excellent examples of citizen engagement and crowdsourcing towards a smarter society. Would be really excited to develop and introduce a suite of apps on reporting; collaboration; project initiation, funding and execution – by citizens and businesses in the neighborhood. Are there any other examples in Europe, like Spacehyve (thanx Rodrigo)?

  8. Posted May 23, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Great post Neal. In the Autonomous Province of Trento in Italy we are collecting signature after having written a popular initiative to improve direct democracy tools and within this crowdsourcing methods. We propose a direct democracy portal at provincial level, an e-petitions portal, citizens’ juries, public debates, public and transparent consultations, popular initiatives with public hearings, confermative referendum, propositive referendum with the option to present additional proposals by the governmental institutions and so on. Technology can help politics to adopt a new approach for urban policies just listening to the best solutions proposed by free citizens.

  9. Posted May 29, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Communities all over America are using a breakthrough engagement tool to allow citizens to engage with city hall online, anytime, from anywhere. And in April The Living Labs Global Award 2012 was awarded to MindMixer.com.
    MindMixer’s web-based tool improves public engagement and transparency, generates a broader audience and opportunities for two-way communication. More important, our data dashboard provides you with participant demographics and motivations, allowing you to make informed decisions.
    Giving people an online engagement tool to express their ideas creates a positive environment for communication that’s critical. Especially when you need to generate support for important projects and future plans.
    MindMixer is a rapid, growing community engagement platform. We have hundreds of successes with cities, schools, organizations, projects, and elected officials. We believe in building connected and contributing communities of action.
    At MindMixer we understand that:
    Dialogue and Collaboration promotes ENGAGEMENT.
    Engagement promotes OWNERSHIP.
    Ownership creates ACTION.
    Action SOLVES PROBLEMS.
    Let’s arrange on Online DEMO of MindMixer for you.

  10. Posted June 4, 2012 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    I agree with you Ron. Your words are quite inspiring. Part of the solution of the global crisis is to give voice to common people for a better future http://piudemocraziaintrentino.org/2012/03/25/more-democracy-in-trentino/
    This is not just to be more democratic but also to be more efficient in the public policies because citizens are involved and aware of the happenings in the public realm.